Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Review of "A Few Small Repairs" at Painted Bird Project; published in the Philadelphia Theater Review

Painted Bird Project’s production of “A Few Small Repairs” opens upon Dick Durrossette’s cramped but potent example of decay. On one of two unkempt and stained mattresses lies a ghastly looking Hazel Bowers (Big Alice). An ancient record player sits atop a small refrigerator containing brandy and ice cream; wallpaper peels away from its moorings, and light streams through holes in the ceiling and a ruined foreground wall. When Big Alice remarks on her lack of choice in ice cream for dinner, “the conditions I am forced to live in!” she underscores the persisting delusions of a life decayed by time and neglect.

If she had paid attention to the deficiencies in David Robson’s script, she would have realized that much greater problems needed solving first.

Robson’s play is a fictionalized reimagining of the lives of Big and Little Edith Bouvier Beale. Kin of Jackie Onassis, they lived in a run down manor in the Hamptons for twenty years before facing eviction over health concerns, captured in the 1975 film Grey Gardens.

But while Grey Gardens was a documentary, Robson’s play wants to keep the naturalistic approach while also injecting elements of many different and disjointed stories (there’s no real plot).

The play begins with the strained relationship between Big and Little Alice (Sonja Robson); the latter keeping both herself and her mother in a state of codependence (a burden that she then despairs over later), by hiding their pending eviction. A handyman (Foster Cronin) comes to fix one of the code violations, and though extremely younger than Little Alice, engages her romantically. Unknown to the audience, this plot-let is all part of the political machinations (ended quickly in Act Two) of an over-ambitious petty official (Gene D’Alessandro) and the surprisingly philosophical police officer (Jerry Puma). Later, the son (Len Webb) of the former gardener interjects racial tension (for laughs no less) into the play in order to motivate the remorse of the handyman (who we’ve never been given reason to care about). The entire play then resolves itself in an impromptu birthday party (that even the official partially attends!) for Big Alice, that slowly devolves into a memory play where she relates the story of fellating a teenager (when she was 44) at Little Alice’s 18th birthday party, where the young man later drowns in their pool. This may or may not be part of a murder mystery (think Chappaquiddick) that leads to Big Alice’s divorce, and serves as the starting point of the long road that leads them all to the opening of this play.

The play attempts all of this but does none successfully. Moreover, not a single character is even remotely engaging. Bowers handles her role expertly, though wasting her skills an on incoherently drawn character that starts helpless, becomes dreamily delusional in remembrance, and then finishes suddenly sane and competent in the play’s final scene. This turnaround (over the return of the “Jackie Kennedy” character) is too unbelievable; moreover, it’s too much a transformation to not cast disbelief on all her earlier behavior.

Sonja Robson on the other hand, gives an excruciatingly captivating portrayal of a hyperactive neurotic—an eighteen year old paralyzed (perhaps, it’s not clear) by a night of trauma long ago. The rest of the cast fills out their roles perfunctorily, save Cronin, who tries diligently to generate both sympathy and intrigue, failing only because the play itself fails him.

At the play’s end, Big Alice remarks, “there’s just no telling where the road of life will take you,” an apparent attempt to tie things up thematically. All I heard was the question that Robson should have asked himself before he began writing this play.

Review of "The Robber Bridegroom" at Villanova; published 4-04-07 in the Main Line Ticket

Any production of a musical comedy populated by backwoods bandits, wicked stepmothers, a not-so-innocent maiden and her dimwitted father, and motivated along it’s plot by a case of mistaken identities, quickly runs the risk of appearing ridiculous. Which is precisely what happens in Villanova’s production of Alfred Uhry’s and Robert Waldman’s bluegrass musical “The Robber Bridegroom.” Think Deliverance meets Hee-Haw.

Billed as a dark Southern fairy tale, the musical revolves around the romance of gentleman bandit Jamie Lockhart (Charles Illingworth) and Rosamund Musgrove (Janet McWilliams), who meet in the woods of Mississippi and quickly fall in love. Things quickly go awry when Rosamund’s father Clement (Andy Joos) wants to marry her to Lockhart, but in his less-charming everyday persona. Rosamund’s stepmother Salome (Amy Walton) wants her out of the way to seduce Lockhart for herself, and hires a simpleton named Goat to kill her. Throw in a pair of goofy outlaws (one is only a disembodied head—that sings nonetheless) and a talking bird, and things run downhill pretty quick.

But in a good way, as director Peter Reynolds’ decision to make even the seamy elements of this story as ridiculous as possible, coupled with strong performances, results in a highly enjoyable production.

A little more Broadway than bluegrass, Illingworth charms as Lockhart; upstaged only by the syrupy down-home numbers “Ain’t Nothin Up” and “Sleepy Man” sung sweetly by the very promising McWilliams, and the hysterical playing by Walton, decked out (like most of the cast) in mangy costumes and blackened teeth. Nothing was less appetizing then this ragged woman offering to take Lockhart on a “stroll along her thorn bush gardens, and little was funnier than watching everyone draw back in disgust.

The ensemble energizes and creates most of the mood, and in Reynolds’ inventive staging (helped by Jerold R. Forsyth’s nimble lighting), becomes a forest, a meadow, and even a raft on the Mississippi River.

The only dead moments come from the story itself, which seems that much slower against the backdrop of the toe-tapping score and rich singing. The cast could’ve done more to enliven the story, and the bland choreography did little to help; and the good decision to take a dark comedy and turn it into a campy fairy tale almost gets away from them.

But then the music would begin, the cast start to sing, and the silliness once again turn delightful.

Review of "Godspell" at the Barnstormers Theater; published 3-21-07 in the News of Delaware County

In our age of shock jocks, reality television, and American Idol, it’s hard to imagine the “Sermon on the Mount” as an effective way to court viewers. In Godspell, Christ (or at least writer Stephen Schwartz) seems to understand this, as songs punctuate a retelling of the parables found in the Book of John through skits, vaudeville numbers, and even charades. When you consider what Christ has been up against (the play begins with a channel surf through the various philosophies of the last 500 years), it’s no surprise that he’d alter the medium of his message just a bit.

Half play, and half musical, Godspell (while a favorite of all theaters) is a very difficult show to pull off, requiring not only good singers, but standout comedic talent as well (original productions have included Gilda Radner and Martin Short). And while the current production at the Barnstormers offers a fantastic ensemble of singers, the production stumbles through the skits, and consequently loses the narrative message of the show.

Part of this failure rests on the co-directing of J. Everett Rihel and Steve Crooks (who also plays Jesus); the rest on the very silly premise of the show itself. Godspell opens on a disparate bunch—in this case, career day at a Catholic elementary school. Christ appears, and suddenly doctors and lawyers shed their modern profession to follow him and eagerly adapt their lives to his teachings. The show does this in a leap, requiring a strong cast to display initial reluctance that solidifies into a later discipleship.

But the Barnstormer production can’t equal the demands the show presents, and as such, a sense of “why are these people here” permeates the entire production. This becomes most evident at the crucifixion (Finale), where the emotions seem especially artificial, as Rihel and Crooks never provide the solid direction throughout that would solidify the acting needed at the end of this play.

However, Godspell is also half-musical, and here the production largely shines. In most of the songs, a cast member solos through verses, as the ensemble sings back up during the chorus. Nearly everyone sparkles, particularly Suzanne Staino in the sultry “Bless the Lord,” Jennifer Blakeley’s soulful “By My Side,” and the very pleasant voice of Caroline Pusak on the signature “Day by Day.” Randy Marcheski stands out in his own right, not only as the lone man in the ensemble, but as the only cast member who’s consistently on target in both singing and in the tremendous amount of comedy he infuses into this production. As Jesus, Crooks sings with a soft, lovely voice, however difficult it is to hear against the electric guitar that plays through most of his numbers.

Seeing Christ’s teachings dramatized, this production makes very evident how difficult it is to follow his commandments faithfully. His imperative to “not announce our good works” certainly hits home in an age of Angelina Jolie and Bono, while others seem both dated (“someone’s got to be oppressed”) or counterproductive (“don’t worry about the future”). But relevant or not, what clearly falls on deaf modern ears is the consequences of his (then) revolutionary ideas. Ages ago, Judas betrayed Christ to his death on the cross. The message today? The worst they could do is vote him off the show.